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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Good Rockin’ (Maybe) Monday

For former rock musician Adam Steltzner, the performance planned for 5 August ranks as the biggest, most nerve-wracking, most important, and potentially most brilliant debut of his career. Though Steltzner still wears an Elvis-style duckbill haircut along with snakeskin boots, National Public Radio’s Joe Palca reports, it isn’t an audience’s reaction to their performance that has had him and his cohorts on pins and needles for months. Rather, it is how the NASA Mars rover Curiosity will perform in its extremely tricky landing on the planet’s surface.  Steltzner headed up the design team that has spent nearly 10 years dreaming up and bringing to fruition a totally new approach to landing a vehicle on Mars. 

In his route from rock music to Mars rocks, Steltzner made some career choices unusual for people in his line of work.  An indifferent student throughout his school career, he heard from his teachers and even his father that he was unlikely to accomplish anything of value in life, let alone triumph in rocket science.  After intensely studying “sex, drugs and rock and roll” in high school,” Steltzner told Palca, he tried for stardom on the bass guitar–unsuccessfully–when he graduated, bypassing college. But one night while returning home from a gig, he became enthralled by the movement of the constellation Orion. 

His fascination led him to sign up for a community college physics class.  His newly discovered love of learning and need to know about the heavens led to a Ph.D. in engineering physics and a career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he and his team designed Curiosity. And that could lead, as the King of Rock and Roll might have put it, to good rockin’ on Monday.

Steltzner is not the only rock guitarist to combine spacey music with space science. Brian May of the band Queen has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, along with more hit songs than Steltzner could dream of.  But if Curiosity functions as hoped, Steltzner will be the only rocker in the known universe whose team has scored a hit of interplanetary proportions.